The Future of Theological Education: A Reflection

Justus Hunter

One of the advantages of crises is that they force us to return to the basics. And so many of us are asking a rather basic question: What is theological education? The question is just the sort of beginning the thirteenth-century theologians I spend most of my time with would appreciate. Quid sit? What is it?

Of course, to say it’s a good question isn’t to say it’s a simple one. It is, in fact, quite difficult. But I would like to issue a few comments, reflecting issues I’ve been mulling over as a theological educator, as a contribution to our good, quid sit question.

First, conversation is a necessary condition of theological education, whatever it is. When a bachelor at the University of Paris would incept to become a Master (something akin to receiving a PhD) in the thirteenth century, the defense-like ceremony would pose four questions to the Master-to-be. The questions would be distributed a week in advance, and treated two-a-day for two days. The third question, on the second day, was a high point. Following a barrage of arguments from the faculty, the Master-to-be would only be allowed only a concise response, without giving a thorough resolution of all arguments and extended exposition of his own solution. Ordinarily, that full response would be one of the Master’s first tasks after his inception, after graduation. The message was clear: this conversation would continue. To be a Master, to be a theological educator, is to be in conversation. To learn theology is to enter an ongoing conversation, with those before us and those around us. And, insofar as our work lives on in myriad ways, with those beyond us.

Second, I want to say that, whatever theological education is, the advance of digital education will challenge us to reflect more deeply on the question than we might have otherwise. I am all too conscious that my teaching career will look vastly different than my doctoral advisor’s. One glance at the job market confirms this; the materials we are required to submit press us to demonstrate unprecedented, and perhaps impossible, versatility. We must develop new skills – in online teaching or service learning, for instance. Positions are morphing, fusing, changing.

But this upheaval presents opportunity. Upheaval produces good questions. And finding a good question is half the battle. There is a certain zeal about finding good questions in the thirteenth century. Finding a good question proves a rather challenging proposal. Is theology a science? How is Christ present in the Eucharist? Was the incarnation necessary?

So we have some good questions, some good challenges, and I suspect that means we might have a good opportunity. One thing I’ve seen is that concurrent teaching in face-to-face and online classrooms provokes fruitful secondary reflection on teaching. It forces us to go back to the basics, to ask and reflect longer on good questions about teaching, engagement, formation. The quid sit questions and their ilk emerge and reemerge. And as a result, our teaching improves.

I submit, then, that we have two things for which we can be very grateful: a very good, and very difficult question – what is theological education anyway? – and a means to make progress on it – an ongoing conversation. It may not sound much, but it seems to me that many of our forebears achieved quite a lot with just as little.

Posted Feb 22, 2016

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